BOSTON — IF ever a church building made a statement, it was The First Church of Christ, Scientist, dedicated 100 years ago today at the corner of Falmouth and Norway Streets in what was then Boston's newly filled-in Back Bay. The granite Romanesque church, hastened to completion on the last day of 1894 at the insistence of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, proclaimed that the young denomination was in town - indeed, in the world - to stay.
Even then, over 100 affiliated Christian Science churches were holding services in the United States - a number that would increase sharply over the next half century and then ebb somewhat. Hundreds of ``branches'' of The Mother Church - as the church in Boston is known to its members - have been established overseas as well.
Other events in the church's expansion would include the founding of this newspaper in 1908 and the enlargement of church headquarters into a multiblock complex in the early 1970s. The guiding motive in such steps, according to Ruth Elizabeth Jenks, current president of the church, was ``to reach out to the entire world.''
The 1895 dedication of the church culminated years of searching by Mrs. Eddy for an organizational structure that would strongly root her religious movement. Church historian Robert Warneck says she first gathered Christian Scientists into a church in 1879, with a governance that mirrored the majority-rule democracy of Congregationalism.
By the time the church in Boston was built, Mr. Warneck says, that form of organization had given way to the governmental structure that remains today. Primary authority resides in a set of rules called the ``Manual of The Mother Church,'' written by Mrs. Eddy, with administrative power vested in a self-perpetuating five-member Board of Directors. Concurrently, the preaching of sermons in Christian Science churches gave way to readings from the Bible and ``Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures,'' Mrs. Eddy's chief work.
The completion of the church in 1895, as well as the building of a large extension early in the 20th century, were also notable steps in the evolution of Boston's Back Bay. Sam Bass Warner, an urban historian who lives in the Fens neighborhood close to the church, says this part of Boston was becoming part of a ``cultural axis'' running through the Back Bay at the turn of the century. Symphony Hall, Horticultural Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the New England Conservatory of Music were all part of the new cultural district. Centers of learning such as Northeastern University and Simmons College also sprang up.
Such institutions coexisted, however, with a sprawling rail yard, warehouses, and sheds, located on the present site of Boston's Prudential Center. Blocks of working-class, brownstone apartment buildings filled in the area. It was ``not exactly a well-to-do neighborhood, though the buildings were new,'' says Philip Bergen, librarian with the Bostonian Society, a local historical and cultural organization.
After World War II, the area started to decline and threatened to become a slum.That was gradually reversed by developments like the Prudential Center in the late '50s and the Christian Science Center, with its large plazas and reflecting pond bordering the original Mother Church. The latter development, Mr. Warner says, had a lot to do with creating a safer, more hospitable environment for pedestrians. ``We've grown together,'' says Mrs. Jenks, regarding the relationship between Mrs. Eddy's church and the city.
The construction of the church faced many hurdles ranging from bad weather to strikes to deliveries of faulty materials. On Dec. 20, 1894, just 10 days ahead of the scheduled completion date, the church had no pews or platform, and the unfinished walls were bare. Nonetheless, the church was done by midnight of Dec. 29, 12 hours ahead of the first service to be held there.``It was a microcosm of all the macrocosms of lack and limitation,'' says Jenks. Those roadblocks were surmounted less by the building in stone, she says, than by the ``real building'' of ``lives healed and dedicated to the fulfillment of Jesus's two great commandments'' - to love God and to love one's fellow man.